Alistair Darling has invented a kind of reverse National Lottery, in which the giant finger hovers over our streets. It could be you
Labour’s new lottery: You could be ripped off
In the annals of government cock-up, this is surely the single most astonishing and ludicrous episode of the past 25 years.
I cannot think of another minister who has looked as overwhelmed, as hapless, as altogether washed-up as Alistair Darling, when he announced that the intimate financial details of 25 million Britons had been lost – lost – by the ministry entrusted with their safekeeping.
Across the nation there will now be millions of families in states ranging from vague anxiety to panic. As they fight off the urge to ring their bank and verify the continued existence of their life savings, I want to console everyone with two bits of good news.
The first is that this marks the final disintegration of the Labour Government, and the second is that the police do not so far have any evidence that the two discs have been stolen.
It may be that they have simply been mislaid. That’s right: they could be propping up a wobbly table in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, in Washington, Tyne and Wear.
Perhaps they have already reached London, but have been mysteriously mistaken for beer mats; or perhaps the teenage child of some postal worker has inadvertently removed them to play them on his or her personal stereo. Those are just some of the optimistic scenarios.
I am incorrigibly determined to look on the bright side of life. And yet we must accept that there is a small chance that someone has nicked them, and that even now the open sesame to millions of bank accounts is in the hands of crooks.
It may be that a gang of scammers is out there somewhere, busting their pants with laughter, and wondering which of the multitudes of quivering potential victims they are first going to defraud.
Alistair Darling has invented a kind of reverse National Lottery, in which the giant finger hovers over our streets. It could be you. It could be me – and what will happen to the victims? I will tell you.
Invisibly, inaudibly, without so much as a whoosh or a slurp, large sums will disappear from our bank accounts. Funny entries will appear on our statements – and by the time we have worked out what is happening, it will be far, far too late.
A couple of years ago, I got back from a family holiday to find that my bank account had taken a quite amazing battering.
I knew that the thing had been expensive, but nothing we had done accounted for the emaciated condition of the bottom line.
I ran my eye down the entries, and found all sorts of payments I didn’t recognise: it seemed I’d bought something costing £754 at lastminute.com; and – help – I’d made a payment of £1,000 to a bank called Egg.
With the cry of one who realises that a giant tapeworm is coiled in his innards, devouring his substance, I realised I had been diddled.
I sprang to the phone, and to the immense credit of Barclays, it instantly sorted it all out. It just asked me to read out all the entries that looked dodgy, and then, slosh, it gave me the money back.
I was very grateful, but I had to admit I was puzzled at the no-questions-asked approach.
Surely, I inquired, this was a serious criminal matter. Surely they had an electronic trail that would allow them to collar whichever swine had ripped us off; surely they weren’t going to take this lying down.
What are you going to do to catch the thieves? I asked. “Not a lot, I am afraid, sir,” said the fellow, and explained that it wasn’t really worth the effort.
The hunt for the criminals would be expensive; it would involve many lawyers, and it might not come off.
It was more economical for the banks just to take the hit and move on; and I remember being indignant at the time, because it struck me as quite wrong in principle that someone should be allowed to get away with a brazen act of theft.
However rational it might appear, this apathy by the banks was setting a very bad precedent. If people know that they are unlikely to be pursued, then they will simply come back for more.
I make this point because only two weeks ago I got a letter from the Egg bank, informing me that it had turned down my request to open an account. Eh? I thought, and then I realised that they were at it again.
Someone had tried to open an Egg account in my name, presumably to start siphoning funds out of Barclays, and for all I know it is the same people who robbed me last time, and who should have been pursued, prosecuted and jailed.
When you hear these stories, and you look at your email inbox, and you see all the absurd phishing expeditions by pseudo-banks, it is easy to get the impression that we are surrounded by circling dorsal fins of innumerable would-be fraudsters.
Worse, we have this sense that we don’t know where most of them are, in the vast wastes of cyberspace, and we don’t know how they will make their attack. They could be bugging our phones; they could be secretly photographing us at the bank machine.
In those circumstances, we want to be absolutely certain that our information is treated with respect by the people in government agencies to whom we are obliged to give it.
What is so appalling about the present episode is the casualness, the condescending indifference on the part of the state towards the privacy of British people.
This is how they treat vital personal information – allowing a junior official to burn it on to several discs, and then losing it in the mail.
How dare these people continue to make the case for ID cards? How dare they claim that they can be trusted with any more of our data?
The argument is lost, and before the Government wastes £10 billion of our money, it should run up the white flag and withdraw the Bill. I’m sorry, Darling, but it’s over.